The gleam

When someone asks me am I working on something, I never really know what to say. I want to answer truthfully, for that is how I was brought up. Yes, I say, there is something. I don’t know what it is yet, but I think there is something, yes. What is it, they say. I can’t tell you, I say. Can’t or won’t? Both.

I’m much happier talking about writing that has happened, in the past, the artefact of it, not the action. This is also the case for talking about that most shadowy of concepts my ‘process’ or ‘practice’. I put those words in quotes partly because I have a long-standing terror of coming across all pretentious and partly because I only recognise these things as having occured, in the past tense. When I am actually writing the last thing I am aware of is what this practice entails. All I am prepared to give away is that it is messy, non-linear and never as easy as I want it to be.

But there is one thing that is common to all of my projects (practice), and that is the moment when you realise what it is you have been doing (or have foolishly embarked on) has the potential to become something other than what you first intended. In other words, it appears to you (to me) as having a form, a being, a living entity, with a life of its own. In Still Writing this is what Dani Shapiro says arrives ‘with the certainty of its own rightness’. Emerson called it ‘a gleam of light which flases across [your] mind from within’. Joan Didion called it ‘a shimmer around the edges’.

I can’t go into the details, but I know I have experienced those flashes and gleams this year. Most often when I was not looking for it, was certain it would never arrive again, and definitely not in the middle of doing any writing. I experience them as excitement, of course, as a kind of longing that suddenly shows signs of becoming fulfilled. Increasingly, however, I also experience them with a kind of grief. While I know that the project in hand may well have its own ideas about its final form and destination, I am also aware of a kind of holy terror that is twin to the thrill of discovery: there will be no one else to blame, no one else to do the work. No one is responsible for this, but me. And then that essay-for-homework feeling: now there is just the work. Whatever you are working on at the moment (and whether you even realise you are working or not), I wish you gleams and flashes this year.


  1. Thank you for your post. I don’t like talking about my writing process either. This is mostly because I don’t understand how it works myself. The gleam can be awesome and terrifying at the same time. I often feel like my characters have taken over the story.

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  2. If someone asks you “if” you are working on something it’s a real sign imho that they really don’t have any idea about what life is like as a writer, a creative person or anyone who “produces” something. I’d say there is an “internal force” that propels us to do something creative – I would not describe it is an urge or even any kind of addiction (to the positive feelings you get from birthing an idea, coining a phrase, distilling an idea or from the satisfaction of crafting something to completion) – I think of a force – like gravity or buoyancy – an apple falls or bobs to the surface – it’s not a force that can be resisted and the apple has no urge that can be controlled – however, there is a paradox – the force doesn’t feel like an external one like gravity – it definitely feels like it comes from inside. I paint water-colours, I write songs and I write a mix of poetry and poetic fact – everything is based on the real things in my life or about people or things that momentarily capture my fascination – it’s all diary writing in a way. In Emily Darcy’s tiny book of quotes “Inspiration for Writers” I like the line from Burton Roscoe “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of a window” – I’d assume you are “always” working on something whether you are aware of it or not – the subconscious, for instance, is relentlessly double-digging every square foot of your apparently uninspiring life; I don’t hold with the idea of a “muse” – I do get inspired but I work at things – there is always work to do even (or especially) in the absence of inspiration.

    As for the “holy terror” – I see that too – but I always say you have to “learn to love” the whole experience (I’m avoiding the use of the word process here) – every bit of it – even the holy terror of it.

    Do you feel the pressure of expectation too much – from yourself as much as anyone else? I think it’s a beautiful chaotic process(!) – I think creatives really can find a bit of peace of mind by embracing that thought – you can’t change the nature of the beast so you’re going to have to accept it – you’re hardly ever going to feel that confident and secure about where you are in the creative cycle – Simon Armitage said something like – if it was easy, everyone would be doing it and I probably wouldn’t be! In spite of all the uncertainties and insecurities, I think it *is” rewarding having a creative life; it makes me think I should take more risks in my real life – not that you really have any choice in the matter!

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